Posted by: Dan | July 3, 2005

Justice: Retributive, Restorative, and Distributive

North American politics, still bearing certain vestiges of Christendom, has maintained an ongoing love affair with the notion of justice (and, alas, quite often that love affair never moves beyond a notion into concrete practice… but I digress). The West has generally found it convenient to maintain the definition of justice that Christendom provided. Such a definition may well be worth re-examining. Once again I go back to a favourite subject of mine — just because Christians value “justice,” and contemporary culture values “justice,” it doesn't mean both parties are valuing the same thing. In fact I think Christian talk about justice is fundamentally different than the way in which Western culture, particularly North American culture, talks about justice (in this discussion I am especially indebted to Brueggemann; surprise, surprise, I told you that book was good; cf. Theology of the Old Testament, 735-42).

It seems that the prevalent understanding of justice is retributive. Justice is understood as giving a person their just deserts on the basis of performance — a system of reward and punishment based on an individual's behaviour.

However, the biblical understanding of justice is distributive. The intention of biblical justice is to redistribute social goods and social power, and reorder they way in which those are arranged. This is what the liberation theologians are talking about when they argue that God shows a preferential option for the poor. Distributive justice recognises that all members of a community are intimately linked with all other members. It seems to me that restorative justice picks up on this to a certain degree — it does well to emphasise the communal nature of human existence, but perhaps it does not emphasise the concrete physical ramifications of this as much as it should. Distributive justice makes it clear that practising justice is inextricably linked to things like the distribution of goods.

Now a case can certainly be made for both retributive and distributive justice within the biblical texts (the bible, after all, reflects various traditions that are often in tension with one another), but the bible is quite unambiguous about the fact that distributive justice — which destabilises the status quo — trumps retributive justice — which is often used to maintain “order,” specifically the way things are presently ordered. That is to say, those who have a vested interest in the status quo will be eager to maintain a retributive definition of justice. Unfortunately such justice, that is so triumphant in a society that perpetuates (and is premised upon?) social inequalities, has very little to do with any sort of Christian justice.

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